Annihilators, The (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (18th May 2019).
The Film

The Annihilators (Charles E Sellier, Jr, 1985)

Synopsis: The Vietnam War. A platoon of American elite soldiers – consisting of Bill (Christopher Stone), Ray (Gerrit Graham), Garrett (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), Woody (Andy Wood) and Joe (Dennis Redfield) – who are given their orders by a mysterious intelligence officer known only as ‘Popeye’, find themselves ambushed by the NVA. They survive only thanks to the selflessness of Joe, who rescues the other three heroically, but at a cost: Joe suffers a spinal injury that will confine him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Some years later, back home in Atlanta, Joe is working for his father Louie (Sid Conrad) in a neighbourhood that is controlled by three street gangs: the Scorpions, the Turks and the Rollers, the latter of which is led by the vicious Roy Boy (Paul Koslo). The Rollers run a protection racket, and they visit Louie’s shop demanding money. Roy Boy and his gang sexually assault one of the female customers; she fights back, however, which leads to a member of Roy Boy’s gang killing her. Intent on ensuring there are no witnesses to this crime, Roy Boy uses a meat tenderizer to crush Joe’s skull.

At Joe’s funeral, Bill learns of the perils facing the community: the police are powerless to stop the gangs, who are released back on the street almost immediately and will seek retribution against anyone who testifies against them. ‘The police ain’t gonna find the punks that killed Joe’, one man tells Bill, ‘Nothing’s gonna change’. Determined to make a difference, Bill calls Garrett, Woody and Ray. Garrett is now a family man; Woody is working as an accountant; meanwhile, Woody is homeless and an alcoholic. Together, they train members of the local community in self-defence; these are skills which the local residents put into action immediately.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Hawkins (Jim Antonio) of the Atlanta police department is investigating vigilantism in the area. Unfazed by this, Bill and his team continue to undermine the Rollers’ operations in the area. However, the stakes are raised when Ray is killed in a shootout after diving selflessly on top of a young girl in order to save her life. Bill and his team decide to settle the score by stealing a truckload of heroin for which the Rollers are a conduit, thus alienating the Rollers from their ‘higher ups’ in the drug trade. This leads to a final, bloody confrontation between Bill’s crew and Roy Boy’s hoodlums which also reveals the identity of the mysterious ‘Popeye’ who directed Bill’s platoon back in ‘Nam.

Critique: Not an adaptation of the then-recently published Matt Helm novel The Annihilators (Donald Hamilton, 1983), Charles E Sellier, Jr’s picture The Annihilators (1985) is one of a series of films of the late 1970s and 1980s that focuses on veterans of the Vietnam war who, upon returning home, turn vigilante and defend a small community. As such, the film sits alongside such pictures as George Armitage’s Vigilante Force (1976), John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder (1977), James Glickenhaus’ The Exterminator (1980) and its sequel Exterminator 2 (Mark Buntzman, 1984) and Josh Becker’s Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except (1985), alongside the television programme The A-Team (1983-7). These stories arguably replaced the gunslinger Westerns in which an anti-hero on the fringes of the law would ride into town and teach the sodbusters how to fight back against the villains who sought to oppress them. Represented by films from George Stevens’ Shane (1953) to revisionist Westerns such as Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973), this subgenre of the Western was referenced explicitly in Brian Garfield’s iconic vigilante novel Death Wish (1972), whose hero, the vigilante Paul Benjamin, watches a Western on television and observes that ‘It was easy to see why Westerns were always popular and he was amazed he hadn’t understood it before. It was human history. As far back as you wanted to go, there were always men who tilled the soil and there were always men on horseback who wanted to exploit them and take everything from them, and the hero of every myth was the hero who defended the farmers against the raiders on horseback, and the constant contradiction was that the hero himself was always a man on horseback’ (Garfield, 1972).

Stories of Vietnam veterans who came home and ‘turned’ vigilante also allowed filmmakers to explore the process of readjustment for men returning home from war – and what would today be labelled PTSD. In some of the films (for example, Rolling Thunder and, of course, Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood, 1982), which sit alongside more prestigious films such as Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (also 1978), this is more explicit than in others. The Annihilator pays lip service to the concept of readjustment to civilian life through the character of Woody, who has found little back home to sustain him and is now homeless and an alcoholic. When I got back from ‘Nam, there wasn’t much left, Woody tells his old comrades, ‘Girl, job, old gang. All gone [….] If a man can’t fit someplace, with somebody, he ain’t got much’. However, the Vietnam War itself was for a long period a taboo subject in American cinema: the only American film made about the Vietnam War whilst the war was still raging was, of course, the propagandistic John Wayne picture The Green Berets (Ray Kellog, 1968), and it would be half a decade after the war had ended before films about the Vietnam War would become a ‘thing’ via pictures such as Sidney J Furie’s The Boys in Company C (1978) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). These pictures opened the floodgates for exploitation pictures focusing on American involvement Vietnam, including the likes of Joseph Zito’s Missing in Action (1984) and Italian films like Antonio Margheriti’s L’ultimo cacciatore (The Last Hunter, 1980).

The Annihilators was released directly to home video in a market that was saturated with vigilante narratives and during an era in which Reaganite political discourse was pushing a new sense of patriotism. Like many of its kin, The Annihilators demonstrates the cool efficiency of Bill’s platoon in its opening Vietnam-set sequence. ‘He [Popeye] sense you out there on shit jobs because you’re the best there is’, Bill reminds his brothers-in-arms before they set out on their mission. In an unpublished MA thesis submitted to John Carroll University in 2014, Joseph Roskos has suggested that where a film like The Exterminator features a protagonist who comes home and fights criminals who become thinly-veiled substitutes for the North Vietnamese soldiers he faced in Vietnam, The Annihilators is more complex (or perhaps, confused). Roskos notes that in The Annihilators, ‘instead of hunting substitutes for Vietnamese soldiers, the veterans become more like the enemy combatants whom they fought in the war […] [A]fter a shootout with the Rollers gang, a citizen named Marie hides the veterans’ weapons to prevent the police from arresting the veterans. This example gives the impression that the veterans are the Vietcong or NVA, and the citizens are the villagers who occasionally stockpiled weapons for them. Nonetheless, the veterans (foreigners) enter from the outside to fight crime (communism); the veterans in The Annihilators ultimately succeed in building peaceful relations with South Point’s citizens (Vietnamese)’ (Roskos, 2014: 54). At the end of the picture, of course, the Americans ‘get to win this time’ (to paraphrase John Rambo): they successfully train the citizens to fight back (like Paul Kersey in Michael Winner’s Death Wish 3, also released in 1985) and defeat the occupying street gangs. Bill’s team show the locals various self-defence techniques, culminating in a montage sequence in which the residents of the community fight off various attacks by gang members – including a young woman who is dragged into an alleyway by a member of the Rollers only to fend him off with a superbly-executed roundhouse kick(!)

The film’s depiction of gang culture is as off-key as most 80s pictures about street gangs: the area is divided into territories occupied by three distinct gangs, of which Roy Boy’s crew is simply one. However, bizarrely these gangs are not in conflict with each other: there are no ‘turf wars’. Reflecting a tendency of 1980s films which was mocked at the time, the gangs are also strangely diverse in terms of the ethnic backgrounds of their members – and, to top it off, the Rollers are headed up by the clearly middle-aged Roy Boy. Koslo plays the sadistic Roy Boy with glee, whether he is stoving in Joe’s head with a meat tenderizer or consolidating his inhumanity by kicking a child’s teddy bear into the road. However, as in so many other 80s urban crime movies (for example, Black Moon Rising, recently released on Blu-ray by Arrow and reviewed by us here), The Annihilators suggests the street gangs are in the employ of much bigger fish: ‘The gangs are here because it’s profitable. Somebody’s making big bucks’, Bill observes. The Rollers, it transpires, are connected to the international trade in heroin, and Bill’s plot is to create disharmony between the Rollers and their bosses by stealing a shipment of heroin from them. The film’s running gun battles in the streets of the city escalate until the climax of the picture, when Roy Boy faces Bill’s crew not with a pistol or submachine gun but with a military flamethrower. It’s an absurd scene, but then so many other moments within The Annihilators are so exaggerated as to be almost surreal. In one of the running gunfights, a young girl wanders into the fray, seemingly completely unimpressed by the mayhem taking place around her. (This scene may remind the viewer of a slightly more cack-handed restaging of Sam Peckinpah’s cutaways to the young boy and girl holding one another during the massacre in Starbuck that opens his 1969 picture The Wild Bunch.) Ray dives selflessly upon this child, protecting her from the bullets that whizz around her but taking fatal gunshot in his back. ‘Crazy… ass… hero’, Garrett observes quietly, in a moment of dialogue that should perhaps have been the tagline for the film itself.

Video

Filling 23Gb of space on a dual-layered Blu-ray disc, The Annihilators is here presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. The film is uncut, with a running time of 85:01 mins, the previous BBFC-imposed cuts having been waived in this instance. Photographed on 35mm colour stock, the film is in its intended aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The photography, generally, is quite flat and undynamic: presumably shot quickly and fairly cheaply, The Annihilators is filmed mostly in quick and easy mid-shot set-ups.

The presentation of the film on this Blu-ray release, based on the interpositive, is superb. Aside from the slightly degraded 16mm stock footage of the Vietnam War that opens the film, the image is crisp and detailed, with a rich and very pleasing level of detail evident in closeups Contrast levels are equally good, with evenly balanced highlights and a subtle fall-off into the toe complementing the defined midtones which are present throughout the film’s running time. From the green foliage of the opening sequence set in Vietnam, colours are naturalistic and consistent. Finally, the encode to disc presents no problems and retains the structure of 35mm film, resulting in a presentation that is pleasingly filmlike and no doubt better than any other home video presentation this film has had in the past.



Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.

Audio

Audio is presented via a LPCM 1.0 track. This has good range and is fine, dialogue being audible throughout. At the end of the picture, there are a few scenes which feature some grizzly sounding ambient tones that threaten to drown out the dialogue and, at first, I thought this might be some type of distortion, but on closer inspection it seems that this is simply really funky ‘room tone’. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are included, and these are easy to read and accurate in transcribing the film’s dialogue.

Extras

The disc includes:
- ‘The New Heat on the Street’ (12:25). Actor Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs talks about how he came to be case in the role of Garrett. He compares The Annihilators to Viva, Zapata! Jacobs acquired the role by demonstrating his martial arts techniques to Sellier and a stunt co-ordinator. He talks about shooting in Atlanta, discussing how easy it was to make films in that state during the 1980s as productions could mix union and non-union employees owing to the fact that Atlanta was a ‘right to work’ state.

- ‘In Search of Charles E Sellier, Jr’ (10:46). David O’Malley, who worked with Sellier, talks about Sellier’s early career and suggests he was a teller of tall tales (for example, O’Malley suggests Sellier claimed to have invented 8mm film). O’Malley reflects on Sellier’s career and talks about his work for film and television.

- ‘Censorship Comparison’ (1:14). This is simply a side-by-side comparison of two versions of the scene in which Joe’s female customer is stripped naked and then gutted by Roy Boy’s goons. Arrow’s new uncut Blu-ray presentation is presented on one side of the screen, whilst on the other side of the screen the scene is presented as it appeared on the 2004 UK DVD release (which suffered a BBFC-imposed cut to the shot in which one of Roy Boy’s henchmen buries a large knife into the torso of the topless female victim).

- Trailer (1:35).

Overall

The Annihilators is absurd but fun. The handling of the narrative footage is sometimes clumsy, but no matter how bizarre they become (for example, Roy Boy’s use of a flamethrower at the film’s climax) the action setpieces are for the most part well-staged and with a strong sense of geography. There are nods throughout to various other action films: in particular, near the end of the film two punks from the Rollers take a schoolbus hostage, in a scene that would seem to pay direct homage to Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971). The Annihilators fits into the Vietnam veteran-turned-vigilante cycle which was popular throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, from Vigilante Force to The A-Team; whilst it doesn’t do anything particularly unique, The Annihilators is a competent entry into this cycle with, other than Paul Koslo’s eccentric and intense performance as the unlikely-looking leader of the Rollers, little to differentiate it from the numerous other examples of this form (eg, the extreme violence and seedy 42nd Street setting of Glickenhaus’ The Exterminator). That said, Arrow’s presentation of the film is exceptional and is supported by some strong contextual material. Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs is an amiable interviewee, and the interview with David O’Malley about Charles E Sellier, Jr’s career is fascinatingly off-beat.

References:
Garfield, Brian, 1972: Death Wish. Fawcett Crest

Roskos, Joseph, 2014: ‘You’ll Have to Take It: Urban Vigilantism and American Film, 1967-1985’. Master of Arts thesis (unpublished). John Carroll University

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